Opening day comparison
At the time, some Manchester United fans got a little giddy about what the season might promise.
Certainly, the 4-0 thrashing of Chelsea on the opening day of the campaign remains United’s best result this term, though it was an outlier and it should have been obvious in the nature of their performance at Old Trafford. Inevitably, results in the weeks since have shown that Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s side are not that good, and Frank Lampard’s side are not so bad after all.
Yet United can still use that game as a template of how to play against this Chelsea outfit. Lampard’s men have become more streetwise in the past few months and appear to have discovered a new-found confidence, yet they remain defensively vulnerable and reliant on some inexperienced players. Christian Pulisic sprung from the wilderness against Burnley with a hat-trick; Mason Mount and Tammy Abraham are promising rookies and Fikayo Tomori a surprising and still unproven selection at the back.
So, even with both managers set to rotate their squads, United can catch the Blues out on the counter-attack once again and make themselves Lampard’s bogey team.
Test of Solskjaer’s faith in youth
Solskjaer wouldn’t be drawn into confirming his team for Stamford Bridge, though he hinted that Brandon Williams and James Garner were in contention to start, after both impressed in the Europa League win at Partizan Belgrade last week.
Williams is certainly pushing Ashley Young very close for the left-back slot, in the absence of Luke Shaw, while Garner’s chances are coming more because of the dearth of midfield options at the club right now. Nevertheless, selecting Williams, Garner and probably Mason Greenwood too would show how much Solskjaer is prepared to trust his youngsters.
The Norwegian has spoken regularly about putting faith in players promoted from the Under-23s, being “brave” and not viewing it as a “risk”. But the proof of the pudding, as always, will be in his selection decisions.
In the case of Williams another strong showing from the teenage full-back could give Solskajer a real dilemma for the Bournemouth league match at the weekend – and another test of his faith in youth.
A balancing act
Exactly how many changes does Solskjaer dare make?
Again, it will reflect his confidence and how badly he wants to maintain United’s current run, which could be stretched to three consecutive away victories – after 232 days without a win on the road.
The threadbare nature of United’s squad, exacerbated by a number of injuries to key players like Paul Pogba and Luke Shaw, means some first-teamers will have to keep their places.
And that’s just as well, with the likes of Scott McTominay, Aaron Wan-Bissaka and Harry Maguire approaching untouchable status in terms of their spots in the first-choice side.
Solskjaer will also be keen to keep Anthony Martial in the side after he had a transformative effect on the team at Norwich, though will also be keen to keep the Frenchman fresh for the league.
The other dilemma Solskjaer could have after this trip to Chelsea relates to what formation he favours.
He and assistant boss Mike Phelan devised a 3-4-1-2 system for the games against Partizan and Liverpool, which did the job in terms of grinding out productive results.
Yet a return to four at the back worked wonders at Norwich – with Martial and Marcus Rashford starting together for the first time since August, to devastating effect.
With United facing an in-form side away from home, the temptation will be to revert to 3-4-1-2 again. And if that succeeds in nullifying Chelsea and offering United enough opportunities on the counter-attack, Solskjaer could have another big decision to mull over at Bournemouth on Saturday lunchtime.
He must call both games correctly from a tactical standpoint.